Ntongela Desmond Joseph Masilela ’72, M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’77, passed away on July 6 in Roi Et, Thailand. He was 71.
Masilela was born on Dec. 9, 1948, in Orlando West/Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, the first-born son of Albert Mahlathini Magija Masilela, Ed.D. ’64, and Mrs. Florence Vuyiswa Masilela. His paternal grandparents’ love for education so impacted the young Albert Malhathini that he was among the first to acquire a university degree in his village. This love of education was passed down through four generations of Masilelas, including Ntongela Masilela, who was an internationally renowned South African intellectual historian and Marxist scholar.
Masilela began his primary education in South Africa attending Thulasizwe Community School and Montebello Primary School. He completed his secondary and high school in Los Angeles, Calif., and at Upper Hill High School (formerly Delamere Boys School) in Nairobi, Kenya. He credits these years in Kenya, and the influence of Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, who first introduced him to the writings of Frantz Fanon, as particularly formative in guiding him to his intellectual career. He was awarded a scholarship to UCLA, his father’s alma mater, where he earned three degrees in sociology. His Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Theory and History in Marxist Poetics.”
After his studies, Masilela held a research position at the Fanon Research and Development Center, which is affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry of the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles. Masilela returned to Kenya in 1979, where he taught at the University of Nairobi. He later moved to Poland and studied at the Łódź Film School in Łódź, and subsequently lived in the former Federal Republic of Germany where he wrote articles on African and European dance, African politics, theory, culture and intellectual history, while participating in conferences during his years as a post-doctoral fellow in the Media Studies Department at the Technical University in West Berlin. During his time in Poland and West Germany, he met and married his first wife, Urszula Wanda Masilela. His two daughters, Anna Vuyiswa and Nomaduma Rosa, were born in Europe. In the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, Ntongela and his family relocated to the United States.
Masilela was a tenured professor at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, Calif., for over twenty years. He taught literature and cinema studies, developed an interdisciplinary major, and established a research center for the study of African intellectuals. Masilela’s greatest scholarly contribution was his research into the intellectual history of nineteenth century black South African writers, poets and public intellectuals. He developed an extensive archive of articles and newspaper clippings which reflect the intellectual contributions of black South African scholars and writers. He published a series of books chronicling his research as well as anthologies which gathered essays and articles he had unearthed in his research. Titles include: “Black Modernity: 20th Century Discourses between the United States and South Africa (1999)”; “Internationalism and Nationalism in Medicine: Henry Sigerist (2005)”; “The Cultural Modernity of H.I.E. Dhlomo (2007)”; “An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa (2013)”; “The Historical Figures of the New African Movement: Volume I (2014)”; and “A South African Looks at the African Diaspora: Essays and Interviews (2017),” all published by Africa World Press. He also co-edited a collection of essays on South African cinema, “To Change Reels: Film and Culture in South Africa (2003),” with his colleague Dr. Isabel Balseiro. In addition to his individual publications, Masilela contributed numerous articles to a wide array of international journals and anthologies, and participated with boundless intellectual energy in international academic conferences and symposia, often returning to South Africa upon invitation during his later years. Upon his retirement, he moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to live with his second wife, Wasana Suesena Masilela, where he continued to make intellectual contributions to the field of South African intellectual history.
Masilela cited the following intellectuals and artists of the twentieth century as profoundly influencing his work: Henry E. Sigerist, Manfredo Tafuri, C. L. R. James, César Vallejo, Frantz Fanon, and H. I. E. Dhlomo. His mentors included the Pan-Africanist Dr. Ras Makonnen and the South African author and professor Es’kia Mphahlele, whom Masilela would frequently visit in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo Province; close friends and colleagues included the South African poet Mazisi Kunene and renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, among others.
Masilela has contributed greatly to the writing of the intellectual history of South Africa. In the words of H. I. E. Dhlomo, the towering South African cultural historian and intellectual to whom he devoted much of his academic writing: “One thing, so far we have been guilty of, [is] neglecting our cultural men. They write and write, but very little is written about them… We need more books by Africans on Africa… Another book we need is on the New African. Let us forget our lamentations for once, and tell of our achievements.” (H.I.E Dhlomo, “The Cultural Front,” Ilanga lase Natal, Oct. 25, 1947). A lifelong Marxist, Masilela’s greatest hope was that his work be continued, as he felt that many histories forgotten or erased still need to be unearthed and shared.
Masilela is survived by his two daughters, Anna and Nomaduma; their mother Urszula; his loving wife Wasana; and two brothers, Aubrey and Temba, and their extended families in South Africa, Kenya, Poland, and Thailand; as well as respected colleagues in South Africa, the United States and around the world.